Prison Grass by Joshua Braff

This is a really great piece of writing I found online courtesy of the Huffington Post.


by Joshua Braff

The man being interviewed on TV was a killer, but I knew him because of baseball. In ’07 I’d just become the new center-fielder for the Berkeley Baron’s, an amateur team of ex-college level players. The San Quentin game against the prisoners was optional. It sounded like a story to me. Like skydiving or a swim with sharks. I’d play in center-field of course, where all the, “shivs” or man-made weapons were hidden in the grass, my teammates said. The prisoners would be amongst us, next to us, they were even allowed to shake our hands. It was okay, I was coached, they were cool, grateful, not as intimidating as you’d think. They might even thank you. “Thank me?” BUT: If there was to be a hostage situation, namely, a prisoner takes me in his grasp and say, presses a sliver of bathroom-tile into my windpipe, there’s a NO NEGOTIATING WITH PRISONERS RULE. I had no idea what this meant.

The prisoner on the TV was being interviewed for a film about his life in San Quentin. He told the reporter the only positive was being a San Quentin Giant, a uniformed baseball player on weekends. His hair was white now and cropped close but I remember it brown the day we met. I was standing on second base, having just doubled by hitting a ball that bounced twice between the center and left-fielders before hitting the wall. Second base was right at the very center of this infamous yard. And around me were hundreds, six, seven hundred convicted criminals. Convicted of felonies that would make your eyes tear. Many were tattooed, many muscular, the ages varied greatly, the ethnicities too. Asians, Hispanics, American Indians, African Americans, Caucasians and mixed. Everyone stayed in their own groups, the African Americans to the right of third base, the Hispanics further out near left, the white guys behind our dugout. The Indians were over the fence in center, hitting a huge circular drum. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM. I heard it when we first walked in and throughout the game, a drone of warning amidst the nearby foghorns of San Francisco Bay.

“What is that?” I asked my teammate.


“Think of it as a welcome,” he said.

A guard checked our IDs, rummaged through our equipment. He then asked the “first-timers” to raise their hands. I was the only one. My teammates laughed, as the NO NEGOTIATING RULE was explained. If I was taken hostage, an armed guard in a tower above the baseball field would fire his weapon at the offending prisoner’s head and hopefully not kill me in the process. Okay? So consider yourself warned. Now go have fun.

The entrance to the prison is quite beautiful. A fountain in the style of Spanish architecture in the center of a courtyard and a sloping driveway to follow. Around the corner the rumble of male voices grew and the drumming got louder. And then we saw them, a sea of men, a concert with no performance, a rally with no speaker, no freedom, no views. Just walls. Captured people. They saw us, these men in their prison blues. They were lifting weights, walking, running, sitting, standing, drumming, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.

My team in our black uniforms were greeted with some catcalls, Newbies, Cuties, Freebies were yelled and then laughter and I heard some whistles. I thought of my blond hair, my ass in these tight pants. I stood there, on second, watching the prisoners on the bench, my hands on my hips, the brim of my helmet hiding my eyes. The cage around home plate had men all over it. They were hanging on it, leaning on it, smoking, giggling, slapping each other on the back. There were so many people watching this game, betting on it, talking about it, picking their favorite players.

To my left I saw him, the second baseman from the documentary. He was smiling, his crows-feet splayed. I said, “Nice shot earlier,” in reference to his home run. He dipped his head in appreciation and said, “Got a flattened-out-curve that hung for days.” His throwing hand lifted and his open palm was on my back. I patted him too, realizing how many prisoners and guards were watching our exchange. And in the swirl of it all, the drumming, the cheering, the dirt at my feet, I felt a oneness with this man, a criminal with no name. I’d never want to know what he’d done to get in San Quentin. It would only ruin the beauty and importance of the moment. We were ballplayers. That was all we were that day.

The TV interviewer wanted to know “What he’d done,” as the camera flashed his mug-shot from the day he entered the prison in 1964. His hair was down to his shoulders and brown, his eyes were dazed, glassed, “Lost behind the drugs,” he told the reporter. I could have changed the channel. But I didn’t. And in hindsight I sort of knew what was coming.

“I stabbed her,” he said and held up another photograph, a worn Polaroid of a girl, a teenager with long dark hair, parted in the middle. “Her name was Lorraine.”


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